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A Fine Balance




RAMAKRISHNA PARAMAHAMSA: THE SADHAKA OF DAKSHINESWAR
By Amiya P. Sen
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, pp. 177, Rs. 325.00

HIS WORDS: THE PREACHINGS AND PARABLES OF SRI RAMAKRISHNA PARAMAHAMSA
By Amiya P. Sen
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, pp. 265, Rs. 399.00

VOLUME XXXIV NUMBER 7 July 2010

A ll serious biographers have to pass through several stages of work before sitting down to write. First comes the preliminary reading, then the collection and organization of material. Once the factual information has been arranged, the biographer has to think it over dispassionately, trying to understand the events as they actually unfolded and not as they are conventionally understood. Doubtful points have to be resolved, and this usually obliges the writer to collect and analyse more material. Finally, he or she is ready to write, but there is still one thing that has to be done: deciding who the projected biography is for. Is the expected readership popular or academic, naive or sophisticated, conventional or curious? The answer to these questions will determine the tone that the writer adopts, and also influence the selection, treatment and presentation of the material. All this is for serious biographers. Others can go directly from the data to the keyboard. The only thing they have to ask when choosing material and constructing arguments is whether this or that will help them force their opinions on the reader. Such is the modus operandi of political biographers, friends of recently deceased celebrities, and champions of cult figures of various sorts. This is not to suggest that books with agendas are necessarily bad. Take for example conventional biographies of spiritual leaders. A wide spectrum of people want to know about the lives of figures such as Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The hagiographies that have been written to satisfy this need are full of interesting anecdotes and dialogues. Their tone certainly can be cloying for those not convinced in advance of the teachers’ greatness, but this is a small price to pay for the information and uplift that the books contain. Among the biographies of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa are several that clearly are hagiographies but just as clearly are indispensable. Swami Saradananda’s monumental Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master (a translation of the Bengali Sri Sri Ramakrishna Lila-prasanga) is often a pleasure to read and contains a great deal of material that is preserved only in its pages. Christopher Isherwood’s Ramakrishna and His Disciples, makes use of this and other material and is written in the author’s inimitable style, though it has to be acknowledged that it was marred by pious editing, which Isherwood himself chafed against. Owing to his enormous importance in the cultural ...


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